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International Trade

The World Trade Organization (WTO)

A solid majority feels that the US should participate in the WTO and that the WTO should even be strengthened, but overall ratings of the trade body are mixed. A strong majority agrees that the WTO is too responsive to business interests over the interests of the world as a whole, and believes its deliberations should be opened up to public scrutiny. An overwhelming majority rejects its resistance to including other considerations, such as labor and environmental standards, in the trade negotiation process and its principle that, in general, countries cannot refuse to import products based on the environmental effects of how they are produced.

General Support for WTO

A strong majority has shown support for US participation in the WTO. The Pew Center asked in February and April of 2000 whether "US participation in the World Trade Organization is good or bad for the United States." In both cases 62% said it was good, 20-22% said it was bad, and 16-18% did not answer.[1]

Recent polls by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations asked respondents to rate the WTO using a thermometer scale from 0 to 100, in which higher numbers were associated with more favorable feelings toward the WTO. In June 2002, respondents gave a "mean temperature" of 55 degrees, with 40% ranking the WTO between 51 and 100 degrees and 18% ranking the WTO between 0 and 49 degrees. Twenty-seven percent ranked the WTO exactly at 50 degrees. Ratings in 2004 were cooler. The mean was 48 degrees, but warm responses were slightly higher than cool ones, at 28% and 27%, respectively. Surprisingly, those saying they were not familiar with the WTO rose from just 1% to 19% (suggesting that recent military and political events have lowered the amount of news the public receives about world trade). Ratings of the WTO were a bit higher than for the World Bank (46 degrees) and the IMF (44%). In October 2005, a plurality said they had a favorable opinion of the WTO (44%), while 37% had an unfavorable view (GMF). [1a]

When Pew in August-September 2002 asked about the WTO together with other international economic institutions, they received favorable ratings. Respondents were asked, “Is the influence of...international organizations like the World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organization” good or not on a four-point scale. Sixty percent said “very good (10%)” or “somewhat good (50%),” 26% said “very bad (8%)” or “somewhat bad (18%)” and 14% refused or did not know. [1b]

A solid majority also supports the idea of strengthening the WTO. In the June 2002 Chicago Council on Foreign Relations poll, 63% of Americans favored strengthening the WTO while 30% did not. [2] When PIPA asked the same question in 1999, 60% said they supported strengthening it while 32% thought that was unnecessary. [3] Asked in a July 1996 Washington Post poll whether they worry that "The United Nations will take control of U.S. (United States) foreign policy and we will lose more and more of our sovereignty to international agencies like the U.N. and the World Trade Organization," only 39% said they had such worries, while 58% said they did so only a little or not at all. [3a]

Americans are generally supportive of turning to the WTO for adjudication of disputes. In a 1998 PIPA poll 63% agreed that the US should be willing to have the WTO adjudicate the dispute between the US and Europe over the Helms-Burton legislation that penalized countries that do business with Cuba. [4]

There has been some conflicting data though on how much the US should be willing to submit to WTO decisions that go against it. In a June 2005 PIPA poll, respondents were asked, "If another country files a complaint with the World Trade Organization and it rules against the US, as a general rule, should the US comply with that decision?" Sixty-seven percent thought the U.S. should comply while 26% did not. [4a] This was consistent with CCFR polls in 2004 and 2002 as well as an October 1999 PIPA poll that asked the same question – in those polls 69%, 64% and 65%, respectively, said the US should comply with WTO decisions.

The public also rejects the idea of the US having a veto over the decisions of international economic bodies. The July 2004 CCFR poll asked, “When the US is part of international economic organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, do you think that decisions should always be made by a majority of members or should the US be able to veto any decision made by a majority?” A strong majority of 68% preferred majority decisionmaking while only 27% wanted the US to have unilateral veto power. [5]

The only contrary finding comes from an April 1996 Wirthlin poll which asked, "Do you think we should always abide by World Trade Organization rulings, or that we should feel free to take our own trade actions regardless of its rulings?" (emphasis added) and found only 34% saying that the US should always abide by the rulings and 58% saying that it should be able to decide to not accept its rulings. [6] Interestingly, WTO does not actually require compliance as such, but rather provides the offended party the right to impose sanctions as a form of compensation.

Criticism of WTO

During the 1999 demonstrations criticizing the WTO in Seattle, a substantial portion of the population followed the news stories on the subject. Fifty-six percent said they followed very or fairly closely the story on "controversies surrounding the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle," while 48% said they did so for "the protests in Seattle at the World Trade Organization meeting." [7]

A strong majority has been responsive to some of the criticism. In PIPA polls a strong majority has said they agree with the criticism that, "When the World Trade Organization makes decisions, it tends to think about what's best for business, but not about what's best for the world as a whole." In January 2004, 69% agreed and 23% disagreed; in October 1999, 65% agreed and 24% disagreed. [8]

A majority favors the idea that WTO trade deliberations, which are currently undertaken in secret, should take place with public scrutiny. A January 2004 PIPA poll presented the following question:

As you may know, when complaints are filed at the WTO or NAFTA, they are heard at proceedings that are not open to the public. Some say that this is a good idea because they are more likely to be resolved through quiet diplomacy and without the interference of pressure groups. Others say that trade disputes can affect the public interest and thus the proceedings should be open. Do you think WTO and NAFTA proceedings should or should not be open to the public?

A strong majority of 63% said the proceedings should be open to the public, while only 27% felt they should not. [8a]

Rejection of Exclusive Emphasis on Trade

As a general rule, the WTO as an institution has resisted the idea that it should address issues other than trade, notably arguing that it is not an environmental protection agency. However, as discussed in "International Labor Standards" and "Trade and the Environment," overwhelming majorities support the idea that the WTO should address issues related to labor standards and the environment in the process of developing trade agreements.

Americans also reject the WTO principle that, in general, countries cannot refuse to import products based on the environmental effects of how the products were produced (see "Trade and the Environment"). In October 1999, PIPA asked:

Currently, there is some debate over whether the World Trade Organization, or WTO, should consider issues like labor standards and the environment when it makes decisions on trade. Some say the WTO should consider these issues because they are closely related to trade, and good decisions can be made only if all these things are taken into account. Others say the WTO should not consider these issues because its job is to deal only with trade, and trying to bring in these other concerns will interfere with the growth of trade. What about you? Do you think the WTO should or should not consider labor standards and the environment when it makes decisions about trade?

A strong majority of 78% said the WTO should consider labor and environmental issues; only 18% said the WTO should not. [9]

Should consider 78
Should not consider 18
Don't Know/ Refused 5

Source: PIPA, October 1999






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